Project Canterbury

Duchenier; or, the Revolt of La Vendée

By John Mason Neale

London: SPCK, 1905.
First published London: J. Masters, 1848.

Chapter XX.

WEARIED out by their long march, sadly thinned by their two hundred battles, fettered by the charge of the women and children, strangers in a strange land, the Catholic army, late on an autumnal evening, was quartered in the little town of Dol. As an attack was hourly expected from the pursuing, for it cannot be called the victorious, army, the wounded and the women were arranged under the walls--the long street being occupied by those capable of bearing arms. The place was not defensible: barriers were formed at the entrance of the town from the side of Dinan, and also from Pontorson; the patrols were vigilant and active; the officers, De la Rochejacquelein, De Donnissan, Duchenier, Stofflet, made up by increased labour for diminished numbers, and seemed--to use the common expression--to be everywhere.

Rose Le Grand had, since her arrival in the army, attached herself to Madame de Lescure, who still followed it; and Duchenier had watched over her, as well as his necessary avocations would allow him, with all the careful affection of a brother. A wretched hovel, that lay immediately under the northern wall, had been appropriated to her, to Madame de Donnissan, and to Madame de Lescure; and thither, after seeing that all in his quarter was well arranged, Duchenier bent his way.

Rose was alone--the other ladies had retired for the night; and starting up when the visitor knocked at the latched door, she held out her hand to him and told him 'how glad she was to see him.

"Now," she said, "I shall know something of what is really intended; itissosadtosit,hour after danger, and to know nothing of what is meant by the motions going on around us. Madame de Lescure is almost worn out with sorrow and fatigue; I only wonder that her mind has not given way under what she has borne."

"What can I tell you, dear Rose?" asked he. "We seem to have no plan, no common bond of action. Cathelineau is gone--and Bonchamp is gone--and Lescure is gone--GOD rest their souls!--and De la Rochejacquelein, though as brave as a lion, has not confidence enough in his own judgment, and is too ready to be led by others. One thing seems certain; that we shall endeavour to cross the Loire again; and, I suppose, like the hunted stag, return to our own lair to die."

"They say," said Rose, "that there is great fear of an attack to-night. Is it so?"

"There is great fear, certainly: but whether great danger, is a different thing. I should not think there was."

"You have heard nothing from Paris?"

"Nothing. Texier remains there still, undoubtedly. I would give worlds to be there myself, though it would be almost the same thing as going to the guillotine; but I could never reconcile it to my conscience to leave the army in this state; and, after all, it would be useless for my poor Marie."

"You must not despair," said Rose, "while there is life. I may; for my father is gone: but while you know that Madame Duchenier is alive, you must trust in GOD to bring her back to you."

"No," replied Duchenier, "I have given up hoping. But I came to talk to you about yourself, Rose. What do you mean to do? The army cannot much longer hold together; and then, where do you think of going?"

"Madame de Lescure," she replied, "has asked me to live with her. You know that I have not a penny in the world that I can call my own; and but for her kindness I should be an outcast indeed."

"This must not be," said Duchenier, taking a paper from his pocket. "Thanks to the kindness and prudence of my poor father, I have a considerable sum of money in the English funds--much more than ever I can want for myself, should I survive this war, which I do not expect. I have left it, in case Marie is taken away before me, to trustees, for the use of the Catholic refugees in England; and you will find that you are not forgotten. This business I got through while I was in London. But, whatever happens to me, I must ask you to accept, as a little token of the affection which I know that my wife bears for you, this paper: it is a provision sufficient to prevent your ever being, as you say, an outcast, and from her you must accept it."

Rose hesitated; and the tears came into her eyes. "It is not pride," she said, "that makes me doubt about accepting your kindness; it is only the fear that there may be those among your relations who may have a right to expect what you are pressing on a stranger, who has no other claim on you than having showed ordinary attention to Madame Duchenier when in distress."

"You will make me happy--you will make us both happy," replied Duchenier, "should poor Marie ever hear of it, by accepting this. I am sure you will."

And he pleaded his cause so earnestly, and yet so delicately, that Rose at length yielded.

"Now I will wish you good-night," said Duchenier, rising; "you must have need of rest."

Just as he had taken Rose's hand, a confused hubbub rose in the principal street, and presently resolved itself into the cry, "Aux armes!"

"Never mind," he cried, "it may be a false alarm; if not, we will beat them off."

And he rushed to the scene of action. The peasantry, by torch-light, were ranging themselves at the barricades; twenty tambours, the whole musical force of the army, were beating incessantly in the different streets; the various chiefs were hastening to their respective quarters; and Duchenier hurried forward to the barrier erected on the Pontorson road.

"What is it, Stofflet?" he cried, as he met that officer.

"Some of our patrols have been driven in by the dragoons," answered Stofflet; "and they say we must look for a general attack. I'll tell you what, M. Duchenier, we must beat them off this time, for I hear they have sworn not to leave a single woman or child alive, if they get into the place."

"Where is the general?" asked Duchenier.

"Why, at the other barricade. But don't you go to him. They are nearest to this. And he is much better off."

"Very well," said Duchenier, "I will stay with you.--Ah, father, I am glad to see you," he continued, as an old man, the parish priest of one of the Poitevin villages, came up at the head of his parishioners with a crucifix in his hand.

"And so am I to see you, my son," answered Father Pierre. "Have you any intelligence, M. Stofflet?"

"There's intelligence enough!" said Stofflet, as one sharp volley of musketry was heard to the south-east. "Run back, Fremille, to the town-hall, and tell them to send us up more bags; I left the women hard at work over them." Just as he spoke a light hand-cart rolled along the streets, bringing up a supply of sand-bags.

"That's all right," said Stofflet. "Now, my men, spread them out as much as you can; we haven't got too many, and you need not be afraid of making the loopholes pretty large."

"I had much rather be at them, major, than screwed up here like a bird in a cage," said an old peasant.

"I dare say you had," said Stofflet, "and so would I too; and so we shall be presently, if you look sharp." While he was speaking all hands were engaged in piling the sacks; Father Pierre tucking his cassock under his left arm, and working as hard as anybody. In less than half-an-hour, what with overturned carts, ploughs, sandbags, and two or three harrows set up on end, a very respectable barricade was completed.

"They're not near yet, Stofflet," said Duchenier. "Lend me your horse, good fellow," to one of the Vendean soldiers, "I'll just gallop down to the other gate and see what De la Rochejacquelein is about;" and, suiting the action to the word, his horse's hoofs were in a moment clattering down the narrow street; the glare of eight or ten torches fell vividly on the group of men and officers who were labouring at that barrier.

"We'll give them such a reception," cried De la Rochejacquelein, "as shall take them some time to forget it. Have you any crow's-feet, Duchenier?"

"No," said Duchenier. "Have they any cavalry to speak of?"

"Something like four hundred, one of our patrols tells me. You will find plenty at the town-hall, for there was a sort of military dépôt there. But do as I have done; leave a clear sweep right and left of the barricade; for though our horses are none of the best we may find them useful by and by."

"I'll ride back, and give orders," said Duchenier. "If we are hard pressed, can you help us?"

"That depends. If you are badly off, send up a couple of rockets together; and if you are in great danger three. I will do the same."

"Agreed," cried Duchenier; and he rode to the town-hall. It was a large building, in the style of Louis XIV., well and substantially built. Every part of it, from the cellars to the upper story, was crammed with the families of the peasantry. In the great court thirty or forty women were hard at work in making the bags, the sacking being procured from a large manufactory at no great distance down the street. It was with some difficulty that Duchenier made his way through the crowd to the room where the military stores had been kept; and having found the chest for which he was looking he ordered it down to the Pontorson gate, and himself hurried thither first. The town, it should be said, had been regularly fortified, but the walls were in many places ruinous, and at the two entrances had been broken down for the space of thirty or forty yards; so that there could be no doubt of the two points which the enemy would attack. Sentinels were placed round the rest of the ramparts; and many of the women volunteered to mount guard round the town.

The night was very dark and still; and Stofflet more than once gave orders for perfect silence. "It's an odd thing, M. Duchenier," he said, "that we hear nothing of the rogues; I think they mean to take us by surprise. However, we'll be up to them."

In Duchenier's absence Stofflet had made his preparations very well. The five or six small cannon, which were all that he could command, were posted right and left of the barricade, so as to make it the curtain, to which they formed a kind of bastion; every loophole, left by the junction of the sand-bags, bristled with its own musket; the greater part of the men were drawn up right abreast, behind the works; and the cavalry were, for the present, left in the centre of the town, as no great dependence was placed on them. The different parishes, for the most part, kept together; and, in many instances, the parish priest was with his flock. By Stofflet's express command, the deepest silence was observed.

"I think I hear them," said he to Duchenier; "the villains are marching over the common, or we should have heard them long before.--Be ready, my men, when I give the word. You only do what I tell you, and no more, and you may be very sure that the thing will soon be over."

After about a couple of minutes' more suspense, a distant tramp was clearly heard, though the sound was muffled and dead; every soldier had his fore-finger on the trigger, and, as well as the uncertain light would allow, looked to his priming: Stofflet himself stood by one of the cannon, his match lighted; and Duchenier, with drawn sword, was by his side, having in his belt four or five pistols. Another minute, and the dead footfall on the grass was exchanged for the cranching noise of the battalions coming out on the hard road; and just as every one began to wonder at Stofflet's delay, he gave the word, "Fire!" The barricade blazed up in a moment in a kind of reticulation of light; the enemy, after firing stragglingly and to little effect, fell back twenty or thirty yards; and, with the greatest rapidity possible, muskets were loaded or handed up from behind. Three times did the enemy assault the barricade, each time advancing more boldly, and struggling longer; the fourth, as if determined to carry all before them, in spite of the guns that were pointed at their very breasts, they succeeded in mounting the barrier and in coming to blows with the Vendeans at the summit. It was in vain that Stofflet poured in fresh men on each assaulted point. The whole mass of the republican army pressed forward to support the stormers. And now from the other side of the town the shouts and firing gave proof that an equally vigorous assault was commencing in that direction. Duchenier was fighting hand to hand with two or three republican soldiers at the top of the barrier; Father Pierre had placed himself next to him, as if to be a conspicuous mark for the enemy; and as one after another of the Vendeans fell, he was loud in his exhortation to the survivors to avenge their brethren in this world and to share their reward in the next. It was the only time, as an eye-witness assures us, that the priests were ever known, in the infidel language of the day, to fanaticise the Catholic army; and certain it is, that nothing short of enthusiasm, in the highest degree, could have enabled the peasantry to withstand for half-an-hour the no less skilful than desperate attacks of Canclaux. Even now he was practising that method of attack, in successive columns, which made the French arms for twenty years the terror of Europe; and rendered them victorious when, according to all the then rules of war, they ought to have been beaten. Column after column poured up against Stofflet's work, now reeking with blood and encumbered with corpses; till at length it seemed that resolution itself could maintain the post no longer. "I can't help it," said Stofflet, who at the moment found himself close to Duchenier; and turning round he gave orders that two rockets should be sent up. Before his directions could be obeyed, three ascended from De la Rochejacquelein's barricade; and the wily gamekeeper, knowing the extremity of his danger, shouted at the top of his voice, "Courage, mes amis, les voilà qui s'enfuient!" at the same time making a motion with his hand in the direction of Dinan. The Vendeans, knowing nothing of the preconcerted signal, and believing that the day was won on that side, exerted themselves with an amazing effort, and made their enemies recoil eight or ten paces, Duchenier, feeling that it must be now or never, gave the word, "En avant la cavalerie;" and galloping out on both sides the Vendean cavalry took the enemy in the flank. The moment after the whole corps de reserve poured out from the gate; and the republicans, already astonished at the resistance they had met, gave ground, made an ineffectual attempt to rally, and were then driven down the slope at the top of which Dol stands.

Stofflet, who, had he had the opportunity, might have become a great general, would not allow any pursuit; halted his men in good order on the brow of the hill, and requested Duchenier to lead a reinforcement to De la Rochejacquelein's side. Even before he could re-enter the town the bells of the great church had struck up a merry peal; a peal which struck more terror into the hearts of De la Rochejacquelein's assailants than would have been caused by a masked battery opened upon them. Duchenier was but just in time to share in the triumphant sally on that side; and within half-an-hour after all had been given by Stofflet for lost the bugles were recalling the Vendeans from their pursuit of the flying enemy.

Then all was joyful confusion; in every direction women might be seen embracing their husbands or fathers, eagerly inquiring if they had escaped quite unhurt, congratulating each other, and thanking GOD for the victory. And through two long lines of kneeling peasantry the priests passed forth from the church of S. Genevieve chanting the world-famous hymn, and surely it had never been chanted on a worthier occasion, "Vexilla Regis prodeunt."

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